Conventional Wisdom, Science, Frogs, And The Mob

I first became aware of the story of the frog in the kettle when I read George Barna’s 1990 book, The Frog in the Kettle: What the Christian Community Needs to Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Ventura, CA.: Regal Books, 1990). I do not remember whether Barna presented it as a parable or as fact. I do remember, however, that it seemed to be grounded in reality. The point of the story was to illustrate how the church is in danger of accommodating gradually, imperceptibly, unconsciously to gradual cultural shifts until, like the frog in the proverbial pot, the church dies. According to the story a scientist placed a frog in a pot of water and turned up the temperature so gradually that the frog is eventually boiled to death.The book was well and widely received and was reprinted and republished over the years, even with a new title. The story or parable of the frog in the kettle became conventional wisdom, a “go-to” illustration for writers and preachers. It became something that every knew or thought they did.

Then, a few years ago, I read something that said, in effect, “Do you remember that story about the frog in the kettle? That’s not true. It is a myth.” I was given the strong impression that this is what all the intelligent people think or know now. I also remember thinking that it was too bad because it was an effective illustration of what seems (now) like a truth, that it is possible to be influenced unawares by one’s surrounding to a bad end. More recently I came across the story again. This time the writer seemed to be assuming that the story was factual and even made reference to a nineteenth-century experiment. I thought, “wait a minute. Does not this person know that the new received wisdom is that the frog-in-the-kettle story is a myth? If the story was based on an actual scientific experiment why is it false?” So, I began to poke around a little (short of actually trying myself to boil a frog) to try to see if I could determine the truth of the matter.

One of the first pieces I discovered was by the journalist James Fallows in The Atlantic: “The Boiled Frog Myth: Stop The Lying Now!” (September 16, 2006). Therein he writes,

Here’s the problem. It just isn’t true. If you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will (unfortunately) be hurt pretty badly before it manages to get out — if it can. And if you put it into a pot of tepid water and then turn on the heat, it will scramble out as soon as it gets uncomfortably warm.

How do I know? Let’s just say that, as with global warming, the scientific evidence is all on one side of this one. Fast Company magazine did an admirable early myth-busting story on the topic in its very first issue, more than a decade ago. The best quote (of many good ones) in the article was from the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History, who when asked about the boiled-frog story said: “Well that’s, may I say, bull****.” There is much more to the same effect, eg here. The most interesting scientific report is on Google Answers, in response to a request for a “biologically valid” example of animal behavior that would illustrate the same point.

Fallows asserts the truth of his opinion quite strongly. Rhetorically he raises the stakes by putting his claim in bold typeface. He follows with an implied threat of social marginalization: anyone who disagrees with my claim is no better than those know-nothings  who dare question “global warming” (the politically correct terminology had not yet shifted, in 2006, to the rather more conveniently vague “climate change”). The first article linked no longer seems to exist even if the magazine still does. The second is now a Wikipedia entry entitled “frogs in culture.” There is now a page devoted to this story, which provides links examples of uses but also to some of the older scientific literature to which we shall return. The strongest evidence for his claim comes from an old “Google Answers” page from August-September, 2006, in writers appeal to a quote from the now-defunct Fast Company, article which quoted a curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History. In other words, Two of the authorities to which Fallows appealed were essentially the same thing. The appearance, however, is created (as with the appeal to authority by “scientific consensus” in the claim that 97% of all climate scientists agree regarding “global warming” or “climate change.”

The material claim in response to the “urban legend” of the frog in the kettle is that if one did put a frog in a kettle he would jump out unless restrained. Another academic critic the story changed the terms of the story by saying, if one “put a frog in boiling water…”. Of course that is not how the experiments were conduct but responses like these help foster the sense that “all reasonable people think x and therefore you had better get on board or get run over.” In recent years, those who study the sociology knowledge have taken to speaking of “AstroTurfing,” i.e., the intentional creation of the impression that a great lot of people think that something is true when the phenomenon is actually artificial. Just as “AstroTurf” is not actually grass so too there is not actually a groundswell of opinion. They also speak of “Gaslighting,” which is a reference to a 1944 film in which a woman is made to think that she is crazy when, in fact, the bad guys were really using the fumes from her “gas light” to affect her. Of course, she was never crazy at all.

These categories help explain why there was no perceptible groundswell of opinion regarding same-sex marriage but as soon as President Obama announced his change in views on same-sex—in 2008 he opposed same-sex marriage on the basis of his Christian convictions—it was as if everyone in the free world had a similar change of heart. It seems likely now that by the use of bots and the manipulation of social media (AstroTurfing) the impression was created of a reality that did not exist. By “gas lighting” those who still agree with President Obama’s 2008 view are made to seem quite insane.

The new received narrative is not quite “AstroTurfing” or Gaslighting but they are similar. First, the authority cited may be correct but he did not say that he had tried to replicate the earlier experiment. He announced an inference from some premises. Now, he may be correct but it is not the case that his inference is self-evident or that every rational person must submit to his inference upon pain of being thought insane. He may be correct but we do not know that.

Further, I the Wiki entry links to a PDF of an 1897 work by Edward Wheeler Scripture, The New Psychology. The Contemporary Science Series. ed. Havelock Ellis (London: Walter Scott, LTD), 1897. Scripture earned his PhD in the University of Leipzig and was the Director of the Yale Psychological Laboratory. He discusses the nineteenth-century experiments in a chapter entitled, “Pressure.” On p. 300 he wrote,

How great the just perceptible change can be made to become by making the rate of change extremely slow is  a matter that still remains for investigation. It is worthy of note that it has been found possible in 5 1/4 hours to actually crush a frog’s foot, without sign that the pressure was felt, by screwing down a button at the rate of 0.03 mm. per minute. A similar experiment showed that a live frog can actually be boiled without movement if the water is heated slowly enough; in one experiment the temperature was raised at the rate of 0.0002 degrees C. per second and the frog was found dead at the end of 2 1/2 hours without having moved.

Scripture footnoted an 1872 German-language journal article from a scientific journal, an 1875 article from another German-language scientific journal and an 1882 article from a journal published by Johns Hopkins. I have not read these articles but Scripture does not strike me as a loon. There is no indication in his account that, in any of the nineteenth-century experiments, the frog was contained by a lid (which would make the experiment useless and the scientists frauds). He may be entirely wrong in his reporting of the nineteenth-century experiments but that seems unlikely. It may be that the experiments were fraudulent but that seems unlikely.

It would seem that the scientific thing to do would be to try to replicate the experiment to see if one is able to reproduce the results using the same method, under similar circumstances, without changing the terms of the experiment (e.g., by not tossing a frog into already boiling water). Perhaps a frog will not stay in gradually heated water but if these experiments really are fraudulent then what does this say about the reliability of modern science? Is it not the practice of scientists to build upon the work of other scientists, to take as a given their results and to proceed thence? If their results may be dismissed on the basis of what amounts to little more than an a priori, then where are we? What does this say about Fallows’ certainty about “global warming”? Is that theory not based on the work of earlier studies?

It may be right to doubt the frog in the kettle story. It may not be. Frankly I do not see that anyone really knows. Certainly it should not be a matter of bullying, (“everyone knows! Shut up!”). If the science of frogs in kettles is not “settled” then perhaps the “science” of global warming (or climate change) is not settled either? For all that what on earth is “settled science” anyway? It used be “settled science” that the earth as the center of the known universe. Then Newtonian physics was “settled science” and so on. It seems to me that “settled science” is an oxymoron. Hawking was sure that certain things could not be true of black holes until he was sure that they were true.

Perhaps what we think we know is not what we really know. The lab is no place for mobs. It is a place experiments, doubt, and investigation not pronouncements about what all reasonable people know. Were that the scientific method, the Wright Brothers would never have attempted mechanical flight.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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24 comments

  1. Food for thought from, “Dr. Tim Ball Crushes Climate Change: The Biggest Deception In History,” Technocracy News and Trends, Mar. 21, 2018

    “The Club of Rome (COR), formed in 1968, decided that the world was overpopulated and expanded the Malthusian idea that the population would outgrow the food supply to all resources, especially the developed nations. COR member Maurice Strong told Elaine Dewar in her book Cloak of Green that the problem for the planet were the industrialized nations and it was everybody’s duty to shut them down. Dewar asked Strong if he planned to seek political office. He effectively said you cannot do anything as a politician, so he was going to the UN because:

    He could raise his own money from whomever he liked, appoint anyone he wanted, control the agenda.

    After five days with him at the UN she concluded:

    Strong was using the U.N. as a platform to sell a global environment crisis and the Global Governance Agenda.

    He created the crisis that the by-product of industry was causing global warming.”

    • Correct Linda. The modern day version is Agenda 21 (now Agenda 30) which purports to be necessary to stave off climate change. The reality is that climate change has been overblown in order to provide basis for the draconian Agenda 21/30 initiative. I have to add that climate change is very real, but mankind’s contribution is nearly imperceptible (statistically speaking). The primary driver of climate change is the same as the primary driver of all weather, the sun. http://www.suspicious0bservers.org “Climate cycles – Long and Short”

  2. Distinguishing the dismal reality of mans’ ‘group think’ (scientism) from reasoned, rational, evidence-driven investigation of the created world (Science) displays the cultural environment in which we live. Thank you for pulling ‘it’ together.

  3. Firstly, no institutional review board is going to let you potentially boil live vertebrates. So these experiments aren’t likely to be replicated.

    More importantly, please check the Heinzmann article. I’m sure your German is better than mine, so I may not be entirely sure which experiments were on live vs. decapitated frogs. In any event, Heinzmann’s experiments seem to run from room temperature to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is consistent with 2.5 hours at 0.002 C/s (not 0.0002). I’m not sure what’s going on, but it’s absolutely not boiling.

  4. Segueing from the frog back to gradual social change for a minute, let’s take another look at “the church” and SSM. Several years ago my brother’s wife died following a gradual decline in health. He remarried about a year ago. Participating in his wedding last year was the same best man (as well as best friend and college roommate) he had in his first wedding. The wedding took place at an ELCA congregation. The best man and his wife had been members of an ELCA congregation, as well, until several years ago when their synod cast a blind eye to same sex marriages (and gay clergy, for that matter). Following that decision they left their local ELCA church and helped to start an NALC congregation in their area.

    I had a chance to visit with the best man’s wife during the wedding reception and asked her why it took the ELCA’s nod to SSM’s for them to them to leave the church. IOW, why over the decades with the synod’s low view of scripture, the toleration of members who held membership in pagan organizations (lodges), the acceptance of female ordination with open arms, etc., did it take SSM to push them over the edge? She thought for a moment and said that those changes took place very gradually and before they knew it, their church had taken a turn for the worst.

    So, the frog does indeed sit complacently while slowly heating. But near the end, some of them apparently do jump out of the heating water at the last moment while others sit contentedly while slowly dying.

  5. “ . . . what is called scientific knowledge is a cross between knowing everything about nothing and knowing nothing about ‘everything’.”

    Cornelius Van Til, “Christian Apologetics”

  6. Also, if I may ask, what does the Wright brothers comment refer to? That seems like a non-sequitur. There was no “scientific” consensus at that time, if this is what you mean, that heavier-than-air flight was impossible.

    • Don,

      My point is that had the Wright Brothers said, “We all know that mechanical flight is impossible” they would never have flown. Their attempts to fly were experiments.

    • Technically, that statement is true; if they didn’t think they could fly then they wouldn’t have tried. But it doesn’t seem like a good example of your larger point about scientific consensus, since the possibility of heavier-than-air flight had been expected for decades, and groups on both sides of the Atlantic were competing to demonstrate it.

      Somewhat relatedly, did you see the news that Chevron acknowledged in court that climate change is caused by human activity?

    • Not sure what you mean by that. All of Chevron’s lawyer’s science-related arguments were from the IPCC report of 2013. The “business” part, or rather his interpretation in the context of the suit, was that energy use, not production, was causing climate change.

      I think the only new thing here is the venue; Exxon-Mobil scientists have been publishing peer-reviewed science for decades that shows evidence for human-caused climate change.

    • Don – based on scientific evidence, I believe “climate change” is caused, at least in part, by human activity. My response is: So what? Climate has never been and never will be static. The doomsday predictions surrounding global warming and climate change have all been proven vastly overwrought. The issue to me isn’t the science surrounding the CAUSE of climate change as much as it is the EFFECTS of climate change. That is where the “science” is highly suspect.

    • Mason,
      Not sure which doomsday predictions you’re referring to. But if you recognize the science explaining climate change so far, then you should consider taking the corresponding scientific predictions seriously. Why care about the effects? Optimal maple sugar production moving from Vermont to Quebec, for example, might not be a big deal. But if the climate of Illinois becomes the climate of Texas, and the climate of Texas becomes a perpetually drought-stricken desert, that does seem like a big deal.

    • Don – do I really need to recount all the failed disaster predictions related to climate change? Here’s a small sample.

      https://www.aei.org/publication/18-spectacularly-wrong-apocalyptic-predictions-made-around-the-time-of-the-first-earth-day-in-1970-expect-more-this-year-2/

      Texas becoming a desert (in the exceptionally unlikely event that happens) is what it is – humans will adapt and move elsewhere. The Mediterranean Sea used to be a scorching desert, but look at it now. The point is climate and the Earth’s physical make-up are constantly in flux, and always have been. Extrapolating consequences of a few degrees of warming for such a complex system is unscientific to the core.

    • Mason,
      First, you might consider whether science has made any advances in predictive abilities in the past 38 years.
      And regarding your lack of concern regarding Texas, where the danger for worse weather and drought is in fact very real, I suppose 1) you don’t own any real estate there, and 2) have not considered the issues facing Texans who may be too poor to simply “adapt and move elsewhere.”

    • Don – in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore said that “scientists” predicted the polar ice caps would be completely melted by 2014. Obviously nowhere close to happening, and in some cases the ice mass has increased. So much for improved science.

      Texas would not become a desert overnight – people would migrate over the decades or centuries, if such a drastic occurrence were to take place at all. This was produced just yesterday by CNN:

      https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/26/health/climate-change-hunter-gatherers/index.html

      Interestingly, secular scientists have strong reason to believe the event around 10,000 BC caused a global flood, which very well could be the biblical flood based on traditional rabbinic explanations of how God caused the flood (a major astronomical event).

    • Mason,
      I don’t really care what a failed presidential candidate put into a movie. It doesn’t seem very useful to me to highlight the most extreme prediction, which is well outside of the range of most climate models. Obviously, the failure of the most extreme model does not invalidate others.

      The Star Carr research is pretty interesting! Thank you for pointing it out. But I would be careful about drawing a direct parallel between a hunter-gatherer community dealing with a several-degree-C decline in temperature over the course of a century, and modern industrial society dealing with a several-degree rise over a similar amount of time. Significantly, the research article says that changes in the local environment did eventually force the site to be abandoned.

  7. Before going up to university in 1962 I was encouraged by my future Director of Studies to read J B S Haldane’s “Possible Worlds”, which, as a non-Christian, I did avidly. In it was an article passionately defending animal vivisection and attacking the campaigning methods of the anti-vivisectionists. It seems one of their pamphlets contained a photograph of a “scientist” slowly heating an animal to death in a chamber while observing it through a window. Haldane argued that scientists didn’t actually do such things, but in any case, whilst if you threw a rat into boiling water it would suffer, this sort of gradual change would not cause significant suffering before the animal died from overheating (well before, of course, the temperature reached boiling!). So the belief behind the Frog in the Kettle story was already being held by a respected scientist over 60 years before the story was written.

    I must point out, though, that for the creature not to suffer, its entire environment would have to be heated at a similar rate, as in the confined space of the anti-vivisectionists’ chamber, or of a kettle. It would not apply in a bath, for instance, when the animal would continue to survive by losing heat through the parts of the body that were in the open air, or in the medieval execution method of boiling alive in a cauldron. Thus if part of the frog is in contact with cooler air, it will get uncomfortable and jump out. I think the application of this distinction to the Church is fairly obvious – Christians that are still open to the Word of God and prayer may tolerate many things, but when it gets too hot, they will jump out.

  8. I take it Don is not a fan of Scott Locklin or Retraction Watch.

    Don,
    I get it. As scientists, no one wants to see SCIENCE! discredited because they people will stop giving us money and there will be no more welfare for smart people like us with degrees. Let’s work with your position and admit that ALL global warming is due to human activity and not buffered by the ocean currents or affected by solar activity or distance. Indeed, Texas will be hotter than it already is, perhaps by several degrees. I imagine we’ll all simply adjust. Sure, agricultural production will move somewhat northward or crops will have to change. As the man who stopped the desert somewhat proved, desertification also depends hugely on human activity such as irrigation and other agricultural practices so you needn’t panic. There will probably be sheep production again in Greenland like there was during the Medieval Warm Period (also caused by fossil fuels).

    Barring reverting pre-industrial revolution technology and world population, I don’t see what else can be done to stop MANMADE GLOBAL WARMING. I have often wondered, however, why the most consistent climate doomsayers don’t commit hara kiri so they don’t keep contributing to the problem.

    • You apparently “get” nothing. Maybe it would be better to not violate the Ninth Commandment by imputing false motives.

  9. Fair point about the ninth commandment, Don. However, you seem to show up when someone starts doubting SCIENCE! Last time we saw you was when RSC posted a quote from Michael Crichton about climate science.

    Since you keep referencing the IPCC report of 2013 I opened one of the chapters relevant to our discussion. My impressions of climate science are unchanged before and after reading some of the report. It’s a lot of money and intellect spent on something that’s going to happen anyway on time-scales that allow humans to adapt. Looking at figure 1 in chapter 11, it’s not at all clear that near-term simulations are matching observations well (red line versus black line). Also, why does the forecast line (green) not extend to 2013? To the extent that I’m wrong about this claim, it’s the fault of IPCC scientists for failing to caption their figures clearly.

    Here’s the problem I have: climate temperature “data” before the era in which we directly measured it using traceable thermometers is an INFERENCE from other measured things such as the content of ice cores judged dated through radiocarbon. No one was around to record climate temperatures thousands of years ago because Celsius hadn’t been invented yet. The observations (direct measurements) you do have appear to date to the 1960s which is extremely recent for climate time scales. Running your simulations backwards on historic data doesn’t even give a great correlation to the historic data. This should encourage modesty and humility amongst climate scientists. Maybe it does. Maybe climate scientists are being made into a political football against their will. The Summary for Policy Makers suggests climate scientists are the opposite of modest. FIgure SPM 5 is of particular concern. They have high confidence in significant human radiative forcing by comparing 2011 data to data from the 1750s (inclusive?) Anders Celsius didn’t even invent Celsius until somewhere around the 1750s, did he? Was there a robust system of tracing individual thermometer readings back to international standards like we have today? Weren’t standards bodies themselves just getting off the ground? Then they make claims about CO2 concentration dating back to the 1750s. Obviously, carbon wasn’t identified as an element until 1789, so when were CO2 concentrations first directly measured (traceably)? Why is the writing in the “Summary for Policy Makers” so jargon-heavy and unclear when it’s supposed to be for laymen?

    • Walt, thanks for the response. Hopefully this can be a constructive conversation.

      To respond to a few points: Never heard of Locklin. I’ve perused Retraction Watch a few times, but it’s not regular reading. Am I a fan of it? Not exactly, but if nothing else it serves as a series of cautionary tales. I do follow Heidelblog regularly. I do not suddenly show up when science (or, if you prefer, SCIENCE!) is discussed. But generally I’m here for learning. I think my last comment was asking somebody for clarification about a comment in maybe the series on Reformed Baptists; I have some slight knowledge on that topic but no formal training.

      I’m especially a fan of the Grammar Guerilla posts, so when you ask me why the scientists don’t write more clearly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I will point out that “confidence” in this context (Fig. SPM 5) doesn’t mean how certain the scientists feel about something or how humble or prideful they are; “confidence” here is based upon a statistical definition. Details appear to be available in the Technical Summary Supplemental Material referenced at the end of the caption.

      It seems like one of your main concerns about climate change regards the reliability of historical temperature records. This is a very good question, and it’s one that’s been answered before by people more knowledgeable than me with more space than I have here. I would sincerely suggest you read “A Climate for Change” by Hayhoe and Farley, who address these issues as Christians and, in fact, in the context of young-earth Creationism.

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